Goodman Gallery in Woodstock released a video of Gabi Ngcobo and Misheck Masamvu sitting together with a small audience surrounded by the large scale paintings that make up ‘Hata’, Masamvu’s third solo exhibition with the gallery. It shows them conducting a ‘listening session’ a term I mistook for an art-speak euphemism; an unnecessary move away from the perfectly good ‘interview’.
But I was wrong, the listening session did something I love, it made a comparison between artforms. They interspersed snippets of conversation with songs chosen for their associations with the artist’s mindset, his experiences, and even for the shocking cerise of his monograph’s cover (Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springsteen). Adding a playlist to the proceedings provided a layer of textural depth that multiplied insight through association; which is how we place new objects within our frame of taste. I’ve decided to append the session with five songs that continue the parallel between the forms of expression.
The paintings in ‘Hata’ are big and messy; none below a meter squared and bright as a hell imagined by German Expressionists. Masamvu credits that movement as a formative source, adding his voice to the upsurge of 80’s-born Zimbabwean painters finding expression through ‘Afro-German Expressionism’, a contingent that includes Wycliffe Mundopa, Portia Zvavahera and Amanda Shingirayi Mushate. Masamvu’s work is also comparable to the CoBrA movement in central Europe in the 1950s, whose painting style was inspired by the expressionistic quality of childrens’ art.
This complex legacy is evident in Therapy Lounge, which suggests a ring of figures, their mouths and eyes ‘o’s of shock. In the background multicoloured polka dots are a nod to Jerry Zeniuk, the mentor under whom Masamvu studied at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts. Therapy here is a quest for relief from psychological burden. Like a Hata, the Shona word for a cushion used to soften the load carried on one’s head and the title of the exhibition, therapy is an attempt to cope.
The anxious, brightness of Therapy Lounge calls to mind the intro to Of Montreal’s It’s Different for Girls, a song that has the flamboyantly edgy energy of a games arcade. Its vintage synthesizers are overlaid with snarky humour but singer Kevin Barnes wrote it in response to the experience of being a father to a young girl, saying that ‘he struggles between encouraging [her] to be independent and keeping her safe.’ The ‘girls’ the song conjures are ‘not numbed by oppression.’
The quandary of navigating a difficult environment and remaining emotionally open, links to the political content of Masamvu’s work. Like all Zimbabwean artists, the spectre of a troubled country lurks on the peripheries. The ZANU-PF regime seems to have simply changed figureheads from the late Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa with the coup in late 2017, a maddening conclusion to a period of hopeful possibility.
In the midst of the visual tumult that Masamvu channels, the goal of safety and space for growth is embodied by an enveloping black flower with outstretched red arms – the presence of the therapist cooling the frenetic tone of the room. Both the song and painting balance concern with creative reimagination. During the Listening Session Masamvu describes painting as ‘decorat[ing] the monster,’ a form of confronting and engaging with one’s demons. The form of therapy he depicts implies that the monsters are systemic and social as well as personal.
In Counting Coins, an even less figurative composition, a central arrangement of yellow and green marks resembles a chandelier or the semi-circular placement of an orchestra. The oils are bright but the thrashing presence of black keeps the colour scheme from becoming too exuberantly light-hearted.
The manner in which Masamvu approaches abstraction brings to mind Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. More specifically, the part about ten minutes in when you’re sure they’re no longer (un)tuning their instruments and things get mutinous. Much studied but seldom listened to for fun, Berg’s periods of pattern and repetition inevitably dissolve into maximalist cacophony. Structure emerges, then disappears. Experimental instrumental music mirrors the way some abstraction trades recognisability for style.
Interestingly, abstract art, as it has developed within our sensibility towards harmonious composition, has tended towards balance on the picture plane. In a similar effort towards symmetry and order, Berg’s Violin Concerto adheres to the Twelve Tone Technique where in the words of George Perle ‘all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note’.
But beyond paintings that evoke the jaw-clenching pulse of EDM (Natural Glow), the pizzazz of a Bollywood extravaganza (Benediction) and atavistic screams that bruise the vocal cords (Cat’s Cradle) – Masamvu has swag. A sneaker-head and collector of vintage cars, his painting Black Soul is 80% afro, and 20% smug smile and dark glasses. The witty multiple meanings in the title; an allusion to the style of music, a person of colour or an immoral heart show the coexistence of concepts within a figure. So I give you: November 18th by Drake. The kind of song you can imagine playing in a car that drops slightly as it comes to a stop. Like Black Soul, It is self confident, individualistic and maybe a bit nihilistic.
Severed Relations is a simpler creature, its delineations give it a blocky, design-like quality. The exchange rate between the image and its meaning is one to one, nothing is lost in translation here. It is a relief from the visual hyperbole of the other paintings where Masamvu uses the full crayola box. The raved-up aesthetic of works like Therapy Lounge is emotional, but here he is more eloquent. My pick of song is Isolation by Maximo Park, a choppy, straightforward track from the English alt-rock band. In medium and message it metronomically drums out a lament of separation, alone-ness and fear.
More compelling still are his oil drawings on paper. The torso of a wailing figure floats in Unstuck, it’s expertly-drawn fingers raking the air in desperation. Another work of the same scale, Saved, shows a pair of feet cut off at the calves on a platform with wheels and a ladder. The humble composition reads ‘deliverance’. These lyrical drawings feel stylistically related to a poem by the artist (which is in vinyl on one of the gallery walls). “I want to cry in my mum’s arms, / The day she died, I woke up early and walked the dark corridors to the nearest calling booth”. In these works profound quietness amplifies grief. Their succinctness drowns out the ruckus in some of the larger works. It conjures one of my favourite and saddest songs: The Shins – Past and Pending. This acoustic ballad signals bereavement (most-likely the loss of a parent to an unnamed affliction). The sense of a quietly devastating ending is evident from its opening verse:
As someone sets light to the first fire of autumn
We settle down to cut ourselves apart
Cough and twitch from the news on your face
And some foreign candle burning in your eyes